London, you blew my mind baby.

Union Jack flag flying

Everyone knows London rocks but in the most perfect of summer weather in July, it was going off like a frog in a sock. I have rarely experienced such joie de vivre and atmospheric buzz in a city. It was contagious.

Big Ben clock face close up

The city was spectacularly described in the sunlight – bright and blue by day, soft and golden in the long, light evenings. And it was  heaving with people.  And squirrels.

Squirrel London St James

Packed full of tourists (of course) but the bright young London things were out in droves too. It was a people-watcher’s dream.

Horse Guards London

I was last in London some 25 years ago. I was all of 11 and I flew over on my own (WHAT were my parents thinking?) to spend a month staying with my beloved cousin, aunt and uncle over Christmas.

Buckingham Palace exterior with guard

It was a complete revelation for me, a bush-raised child, and I fell utterly and irrevocably in love. So much so that when I returned I couldn’t even read the glossy brochures I had brought back as souvenirs; it was too painful to be so very far away. This was back in the olden days when long-distance phone calls cost a bomb and  snail mail was the only other alternative.

St James Park

The first thing I noticed about London, even at that tender age, was the way in which each and every atom of it seemed to exude its history. It felt so wonderfully old.  London’s history sang me a siren song and I absorbed it, if not the details then the atmosphere it created,  into my pores. I used to bore my cousin silly crapping on about how beautiful a small stone shop on the high street was. Or a street lamp (which was no doubt reproduction but that didn’t detract from its magic on a misty night).  I couldn’t get enough.

Georgian tea lady Mason and Fortnum London

My aunt and uncle introduced me to Indian food, Tetley’s tea, washing your hair in the bath, Selfridges, The Body Shop and Aled Jones singing “Walking on the Air” on Christmas Eve as we peered out the tiny casement window from my cousin’s bedroom watching fat, sparkling snowflakes slowly blanket the backyard. We had prayed fervently for snow and when it arrived, I had my first travelling “moment”.

St Paul's Catherdral facade London

My aunt and uncle owned a fine china shop literally just around the corner from Covent Garden. My cousin and I would spend countless hours walking around the cobbled streets and covered markets, sniffing Body Shop products ( it had just opened), looking with longing in shop windows at cute fimo bear brooches (it was the 80s and we were young) and trying to scrounge enough pence together for a bag  o’ crisps (we were pre-teens and we were ravenous).

Unicorn on Buckingham Palace Gates

Then, exhausted and freezing, we would go back to the shop and curl up in its toasty-warm bowels  below the showroom floor and snooze on vast squeaky clouds of packing peanuts.

Summer berries Marlyebone Farmers' Market

All of these memories came flooding back as I walked around London. I even managed to find my way from Covent Garden market to where my aunt and uncle’s shop was. It’s now a bodybuilding supplement shop. Not quite as atmospheric.

Norfolk Samphire

The heat wave made everyone crazy – in a good way. It was such a pleasure to see people dipping their feet in fountains and spilling out of quaint pubs, chatting to friends and enjoying a drink in the golden twilight at 10pm.

London pub with flowers

There were so many highlights on this trip. It was all one big highlight really. The Tower of London blew my mind (especially in light of watching The Tudors and reading Wolf Hall). Traitors’ Gate with the murky Thames seeping in underneath and the fierce – looking portcullis ready to slam shut behind as a prisoner was rowed inside was particular moving.

Porticullis Tower of LondonPoor Anne Boleyn. Poor all Henry VIII’s wives.

Cherries Marlyebone farmer's market

This is Boudica. We are obsessed with her at our house. She wouldn’t have stood for any of  Henry’s shite.

Boudicea statue Westminster London

There are no words for just how incredible the British Museum is. As a language-lover, the Rosetta Stone just blew me completely away. Not least because I hadn’t known it was even there and so just wandered up to it and read the plaque. When I realised what I was looking at, I nearly fell over with excitement. Nerd.

This is the bust of a statue of Ramses II that, among others, inspired Shelley’s “Ozymandias“. Yaaaah, no biggie.

Ramses II statue British Museum

These Roman helmets – one from a soldier and one a venatores (net-wielding gladiator) were particularly awesome. Even in Rome it’s rare to see such well-preserved specimens.

Roman soldier's helmet British MuseumVenatores gladiator helmet British Museum

Another highlight for me was the National Gallery. It was just a 5 minute stroll from our fabulously situated hotel (the Sofitel St James). Whenever I had an hour or two to kill I would spend time just drifting from one spectacular work of art to another. Such a treat. I visited 5 times in 6 days. And I may or may not have shed a little tear over the sheer beauty of a painting and my good fortune to be viewing it in one of the National Gallery’s light-filled rooms. I spent a lot of time in front of this: the Hay Wain by Constable.

Constable's The Hay Wain

We ate elderflower jelly on a deck chair in St James Park, and browsed through the beautiful farmers’ market just off Marylebone High Street. We spent lots of time in the oldest bookshop in London where I bought Sophia an Enid Blyton book (she is obsessed with Ms Blyton at the mo) Paddington Bear for Olive Enid Blyton used to read excerpts from her books to children at the store so that all felt very fitting. We also loved this beautiful bookshop in Marylebone.

Buckingham Palace Coat of Arms and Union Jack

It was in Marylebone I spied this beautiful private garden. I wanted to jump the fence and roll on the grass.  I restrained myself. Much to my handsome husband’s relief.

Private Garden Marylebone

I loved the soft, green grass of England so much I took photos of patches of grass. Just an ordinary patch of grass. About 3 times. You know, I do nothing to dispel my husband’s fears that I am insane in the membrane. In the best possible way.

Gooseberries Marlyebone Farmer's Market

The food scene in London is phenomenal at the moment. Utterly amazing. Highlights of our dinners out were here, here and here.  For quick lunches on the go during the day, I became obsessed with Itsu. Healthy, utterly delicious food. I so deeply wish we had a chain like this in Melbourne.

Apple and blackberry slice Marylebone Farmer's Market

I had some boxes I wanted to tick this trip, among which: climb a country stile, have kippers and a  hot, strong cup of tea for breakfast, stroll through extra green and pleasant bits of the land, eat great Indian food, eat great British food, have a Pimms in the English summer sun. I ticked all those boxes and more. It really was an extraordinary trip.

Can’t believe it’s taken me so long to get this posted that I am about to embark on my next trip…

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The Roman baths at Bath

Roman baths at Bath with statue and abbey

I totally nerded out in Bath. My great love for and obsession with all things Roman (including my first born child!) is well-documented.  So I was in heaven.

View-through-an-arch-Bath

We had the most fleeting of visits – really just enough to do the Roman baths –  but driving in and catching the train out also gave me a sense of the beautiful Georgian terracing the town is famous for.

Bath from the train

Because Sophia was born in Rome I always feel the need to buy her anything even vaguely Rome-related.

Roman jewellery from Bath Roman baths

So I was in heaven in the gift shop here – replica coins, bracelets, necklaces (above – love their simple elegance), spoons and soap. Yes, now you too can smell like a Roman. A heady scent of horse shit and blood in the dust. Actually, it’s lavender.

Main-Roman-bath-in-Bath

These ruins are so spectacular and the display that forms part of the site is a collection of the most fascinating things discovered on the site. Including the complete skeleton of an inhabitant and a perfectly preserved original lead pipe that still carries the waters around the complex and looks as though it was laid last year, not 2000 years ago.

Balustrade and arch at Roman baths

This is me, lovin’ it. Holding a gun.  Oh no, hang on, it’s an audio guide. That’s a relief.

Met at Bath

Loooooords of the Manor and a last glimpse of Upper Slaughter

Front-of-Lords-of-the-Manor

If you’re off to Old Blighty, I can highly recommend two things to get you in the mood:

1. The tv series The Tudors. If Jonathon Rhys Meyers can’t get you in the mood then you may be clinically dead; and

2. Hilary Mantel’s book “Wolf Hall”.

Lords of the Manor garden

Both deal with the same infamous period of history: the bloody, head-strewn reign of Henry VIII. The Tudors is a visually stunning (although only partly historically accurate) soap operatic portrayal of the period whereas Wolf Hall, while still a work of fiction, is a far more dense but less dramatic account told from the perspective of Henry’s advisor Thomas Cromwell.

They are both brilliant and deeply evocative and so I was pretty much beside myself when I learned that our hotel in the Costwolds, Lords of the Manor, was a former rectory that once formed part of one of Henry VIII’s properties.

It’s a charming, atmospheric building with lots of period features; exposed wooden beams, tiny casement windows, creaky floors.

View-from-bedroom-window-Lords-of-the-Manor

This is Upper Slaughter Manor which is next door and was the main building of the larger estate way back when.

Upper Slaughter Manor

Can you not imagine Henry thundering down that driveway on his horse? Looking all the while like Jonathon Rhys Meyers thanks instead of the slightly paunchy, pale fellow made famous by Hans Holbein.

Upper-Slaughter-Manor

We took these photos very early in the morning so the light really brought out the depth of colour in the lichen-splattered stone and illuminated the golden lettering.

Upper-Slaughter-manor-sign

Dinner in the Michelin starred restaurant within the hotel was a revelation. To be honest, I did not have the highest hopes because the photos I saw on their website made me think there might be a bit too much foam and tricky stuff going on. In fact, our dinner here was one of the best of my entire life. Clever but without being tricky for tricky’s sake, every single mouthful was a study in balance and flavour.

We started with canapés in the garden.

Canape-at-Lords-of-the-Manors

After that we moved inside to the restaurant proper and had dishes the highlights of which were lobster, quail, pigeon and turbot. To describe the food with just those four simple words is criminally reductive but I could never do justice to the sublimity of their taste and complexity withy mere words.

Lords of the Manor enormous trees

The cheese course was yet another highlight.  We had a choice of over 20 cheeses,  most small-batch and locally produced. Among other things we chose a Stinking Bishop. Wouldn’t have mattered if it was aged in a cow pat, there’s no way I could have gone past a cheese with a name like that. And it was stinky and delicious. The other standout was called May Hill Green, another Gloucestershire cheese, with a rind covered in chopped nettles. I’m a tad obsessed with nettles and this too was a study in balance; the mineral tang of the nettle offsetting the creamy cheese perfectly.

Lords of the Manor side front

Chamomile tea rather than a post-prandial coffee was the order of the jet-lagged day and we had that sitting out on the lavender-ringed terrace with a small and perfectly formed macaron (as if we needed anything after the cheese AND dessert) at 10pm just as  dusk began to creep in. What that meant, in keeping with general perfection of the day, was that the stone walls glowed with an amber hue, the grass and sky took on a deeper green and blue and I sighed pretty much the most enormously contented sigh of my entire life.

You can’t quite see the terrace in this shot but this is the aspect we were looking over as we sipped our tea and contemplated our great good fortune.

View-out-to-fields-from-Lords-of-the-Manor

Next morning, I rounded out my perfect English countryside experience by having kippers for breakfast (much to the chagrin of the otherwise worldly Italian water who told me he had to hold his nose as he brought them to the table).

Upper-Slaughter-church

My childhood literary experiences were littered with vignettes of  kettles boiling on the hob, mugs of hot, sweet tea brewing, kippers in the pan and toast browning slowly on a fork over the fire. So no trip back for me is ever complete without kippers. It’s a nostalgic nod to the England of my young imagination. Smothered in brown butter and chopped parsley, they were bloody delicious.

Wardens-Way-sign

The other pictures that punctuate this post are from Upper Slaughter; the church, picturesque churchyard and surrounds.

Cotswold's beer

Although the Tudors tv series features lots of shots of beautiful countryside as Henry makes his way hither and thither, if it’s a novel set in the Cotswolds you’re after then it’s hard to go past Miss Read’s Thrush Green series for evocative descriptions of a fictional but immediately recognisable Cotswold idyll. This is very much a novel from a different time and world; lots of “terribly”s, “horrid”s and tea-times interspersed with descriptions of babbling brooks, scented Spring meadows, wild rose-strewn stiles and cathedral-cool woods . It makes a charming escape.

Madonna keeping watch over grave

I know this is a long post – forgive me – I hope it hasn’t bored you and might even have brought you a speck of pleasure of the arm-chair traveller variety.  It was just SO.VERY.PERFECT.

Next stop: Bath then on to London. I’ll try to keep them shorter, I promise!

A blissful walk and Blenheim Palace: Day 2 in the Cotswolds

River Eye Lower Slaughter

Day 2 of our brief sojourn in the Cotswolds began at 4.30am. Thanks jet lag.

Cotswold's stream

Luckily, it gets light not much after that on a summer’s morning in the Northern Hemisphere so at an unholy hour in the am, we were walking through meadows of dew-spangled grass and picturesque country lanes.

Dew-spangled meadow grass

Sigh.

Hollyhock

We walked from Upper Slaughter (don’t forget your Penelope Keith accents please) to Lower Slaughter and on to Bourton-on-the-Water.

Early morning walk through Lower Slaugher
How’s this for a quintessentially bucolic English scene:

Mill at Lower Slaughter

This route, part of the famous Wardens Way track, is usually chockers with ramblers in summer but the fact we got away so early meant we didn’t see a soul.

Me in Lower Slaughter

Except this duck on a wall.  A duck. On a  wall.  You can tell by the look on his face he knows he’s been sprung doing something unorthodox. A bit un-ducky.

Duck on a wall

What a privilege to have these places basically to ourselves; quiet little pockets of sun-dappled bliss.

Costwold cottages Lower Slaughter

The next shot is one of my favourite photos from our trip. It was not only a perfect moment in time but faithfully captures the play of shadow and early morning summer light among the greenery and honey-coloured stone of the caskets and headstones. A melancholy subject perhaps, but a romantic one too I think. Romantic in a 19th century English novel kind of way. And we all know how suggestible I am.

Which is why I teared up when, as I stopped to take this photo, the bell in the adjacent church began to toll.

Graveyard Bourton on the Wtaer

The sound reverberated in the silence and then faded away leaving nothing but the birds twittering.

Sigh.

On our way back we came across this little girl fishing for minnows. Well, I don’t know what she was fishing for but she was barefoot and innocent in a babbling brook on a summer morning and my overactive imagination wanted her to be fishing for minnows. Because it sounds like the thing a small English lass might do in such circumstances. At least in all the books I read as a kid.

Girl fishing in stream Lower Slaughter

Sigh.

We were back at Lords of the Manor for a full English breakfast by 9am that included local black pudding. LOVE black pudding. I know pig’s blood ‘aint for everyone but it is for me. And again, it just felt so perfectly right; so perfectly English and with a cup of tea and a piece of toast so perfectly sustaining

My feet were KILLING me and I just wanted to lie down and sleep for 10 hours but handsome husband pressed me onwards – and I’m so glad he did.

Exterior Blenheim Palace

Blenheim Castle, some 30 miles away, was spectacular. It was worth the trip if for no other reason than to hear that Capability Brown designed the gardens. I so wish I could have another kid just to name him or her Capability.

Here’s a bit of Capability’s handiwork with the impossibly picturesque lake in the distance. Note the perfect, fluffy clouds please.

Exterior Blenheim Palace with lake

Winston Churchill was born here (and was the current Duke’s Godfather). These are his medals. Extraordinary if you think about it.

Winston Churchill's medals

Selfie at Blenheim Palace? Don’t mind if we do.

Selfie at Blenheim Palace

Next: Lords of the Manor in Upper Slaughter. If you please.

An idyllic weekend in the Cotswolds complete with English summer fete

Arlington Way Bibury

A few Saturdays ago I was somewhat shocked to find myself sipping Pimms by a stream in the sunshine in the English countryside.  Shocked because I felt as though I had left Melbourne just a few hours before and yet here I was; ensconced in a vignette of Cotswold life so achingly beautiful and perfect and seemingly quintessential that I truly felt as though I had stumbled onto a movie set.

Bibury house and garden

It had been, in fact, some 35 hours earlier that we had left Melbourne for this most green and pleasant of lands . But long-haul flights do funny things to your perception of time. Cocooned in the warmth and half-light of an aeroplane cabin dimmed for sleep, time seems to compress as you fly from afternoon into an ocean-crossing night that stretches for 20 odd hours.

Cotswold-road

The trip started brilliantly before we had even touched down. The sun was rising just as we flew in to land at Heathrow. Out of the window the first thing that came into view as we pierced  through the clouds was green farmland with the Thames, gleaming a dark olive in the weak dawn light, snaking in a thick band through the countryside.

Bibury Lane

I’m somewhat obsessed with rivers. Especially rivers so old and venerable as the Thames so it was miraculous for me to be able to follow this vast waterway virtually from its mouth, up through green fields until it glittered below in its familiar loop in the very centre of London itself. As the sun rose higher and gave bright colour to the landscape below, we cruised over Hyde Park and began to circle.

Hemlock

I literally had my nose pressed against the glass of the window as I drank in the scenes below me. Deeply green fields, mist lying in the lowest depressions and occasionally something truly spectacular like a castle with its own lake. A lake so large it had formed its own weather system and two small clouds were reflected in its mill pond-still surface. Or a small town with cathedral on a river, the white points of which reached skyward in gothic peaks.

summer-flowers-in-a-garden

But back to terra firma.

Cotswold's wall

By 6am, my handsome husband and I were in our rental car and headed straight from Heathrow out into the English countryside. Cotswold's meadow

Walk in Bibury

By 7am the dulcet tones of our GPS had guided us to Bibury, a charming Cotswold village. We did a three hour loop walk through the town, the nearby woods and fields. It was utterly beautiful.

Ash copse

English countryside. There. is. nothing. like. it.

Stone manor bibury

I confess that I cried. About 6 times. I was overwhelmed by the sheer beauty and a deep-seated sense of being so ridiculously fortunate.

Sheep in field in Bibury

Feeling pretty tired after that we decided to head for the place we were staying: Lords of the Manor in Upper Slaughter. When you are saying “Lords of the Manor in Upper Slaughter” you have to do so in a Penelope Keith-type accent. It’s the law.

Stone wall in meadow

On our way we saw a sign to the remains of a Roman villa from the 3rd century. We detoured. I was in heaven:  nerding out on Roman history in the middle of an Elysian setting.

Roman ruins - Chedworth Villa

Continuing on along tiny country lanes lined with stone walls and flower-filled hedgerows we arrived in Upper Slaughter.

Cotsewold's wall and road

It is a tiny little town.

Sign-to-Upper-Slaughter

As we turned into the main street  a sign read “Upper Slaughter summer fete – today 3-6pm.” I looked at Andrew in disbelief. It was too good to be true. “If there is British bunting and a church jumble sale, I will die” I said.

Then I died.

Upper Slaugher fair river view View-from-slope-to-Upper-Slaughter-fair

And then I died again because in addition to the above there were rubber duck races along the rush-lined stream, a Pimms stall AND Morris dancers.

Morris dancer

Duck race on the River Eye

So you’d forgive a lass for sitting in the sun with her Pimms and pinching herself. And you’d forgive her if she shed another little tear at the sheer perfection of it all.

Andrew-drinking-Pimms-in-Upper-Slaughter

Fete Upper Slaughter

The next afternoon we wandered down to the stream again. In Australia you would see the grass strewn with cigarette butts and crushed beer cans. Of course in Upper Slaughter, all that remained was this:

Pyramid of Pimms bottles

a neat pyramid of empty Pimms bottles.  LOVE.

I have a few more UK posts coming up. Stay tuned to see whether Loooords of the Manor was as frightfully as it sounds, a little more of the stunning Cotties plus a quick trip to Bath (where I again totally nerd out on all things Roman),  and then on to London.

But first, tomorrow I’ll be posting a quick craft tutorial. It’s been a long time between crafty drinks hasn’t it?

An adventurous soul.

Ohdarling3

I made this canvas just before Christmas to decorate a bare spot on our wall.

I just bought wooden letters and then painted them and glued them on.

I used a different paint for the “DARLING” so it would stand out, but subtly. Loving that neon pop.

Oh darling horizontal_edited-1

This is a phrase that is dear to my heart. It’s what I want to do. What I must do for the nourishment of my soul. One of the things I derive most pleasure in life from.

Only thing is, sometimes my soul feels a little bit more like wrapping my darlings in multiple layers of cotton wool and hiding under the bed than gallivanting off on an adventure – near or far.

Oh darling1_edited-1

Sometimes this internal conflict exhausts me and fear nearly overwhelms me, destroying that wonderful anticipation in the lead up to a trip.

But I still go. With my darling or darlings. And I’m always so elated that I did.

I imagine the woman who uttered this phrase (and I just know it was a chick) was one of those irrepressibly curious, sensible but adventurous types: a kind of Katharine Hepburn on the back of a camel in the Gobi desert one week, flying over Luxor in a hot air balloon the next, equally at home at a cocktail soiree as in a Bornean long house.

When I get really anxious I think about that girl. Her plane didn’t crash, she wasn’t robbed at knifepoint, didn’t contract rabies or perish in an earthquake. Nope, she died old and satisfied at the end of a long and fulfilling life.

But she wouldn’t have, if she hadn’t grabbed her husband by the hand and headed out into the world.

Tasmania for the weekend.

Hobart

One of my best girls has moved to Tasmania and I popped down for just 2 brief nights in Hobart. It was short but very sweet.

Such a beautiful spot.

This is the view on the way in from the airport.

drive into Hobart

I felt like we were driving into the clouds.

These are the views from my friend’s house.

View from the hill Hobart

View from hill Hobart 2

Yeah, it’s alright I suppose.

And I had no idea that Hobart loved me back as much as I loved it – see the cloud in the first pic?

It was a sign – I must return. If only so I can continue to crack hilarious Tassie jokes. That my friend just can’t get enough of.

You can imagine.

Next time I am going for much longer and will be visiting here, here and here.  I also need to do this walk.

Ahhh Tas, I have heard your siren song.